Hong Kong’s realistic approach to policing sex work

Hong Kong’s realistic approach to policing sex work

Grenville Cross says while the buying and selling of sex is legal here, the law comes down hard on organised prostitution and trafficking – in line with a recent global drive to decriminalise the trade
Police and immigration officers arresting suspected prostitutes from the mainland in raids on hotels. Photo: Felix Wong

When Amnesty International, at its international council meeting in Dublin last month, announced its support of the decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual sex work, there was an angry response. Over 10,000 people, led by Hollywood movie stars, have petitioned Amnesty, urging a rethink.

The group’s stance, however, is supported by others, including the World Health Organisation, UNAids, the International Labour Organisation, Human Rights Watch and the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women.

Amnesty says that, although the buying and selling of sex between consenting adults should not be an offence, its policy is not to protect pimps.

Instead of prosecuting sex workers and their clients, the focus should be on tackling exploitation and abuse. A trafficked woman, after all, is not a sex worker exercising free choice, but a crime victim. Amnesty’s policy adviser, Catherine Murphy, says trafficking in women is “an abhorrent abuse of human rights, and must be criminalised as a matter of international law”.

The police have certainly focused more on the evils of the sex trade, such as the ensnarement of underaged girls, rather than on hounding individual sex workers, which is a sensible deployment of resources
In Germany and the Netherlands, which have liberal prostitution laws, brothels are licensed, with sex workers having access to state benefits and health checks. High levels of security, not available to freelancers working alone, are also in place. Amnesty discovered that sex workers felt that criminalisation made them less safe.

Laws against brothels often led to sex workers being prosecuted, while in Norway they were routinely evicted from their homes under local “pimping” laws. In some places, two sex workers working together for their own safety faced prosecution for running a brothel, which was unfair and counterproductive.

South Korean sex workers join a rally this month in Seoul urging the government to repeal the country’s anti-prostitution laws. Photo: EPA

In Hong Kong, as in England and Wales, the buying and selling of sex is not illegal, but brothel keeping, organising prostitution, living off the earnings of prostitution and soliciting in a public place all are.

In the 1980s, the police successfully clamped down on vice establishments, particularly the notorious “fish ball stalls”, or yu dan dong, which employed very young women in squalid conditions, as well as on the more upmarket nightclubs providing illicit sexual services.

Nowadays, in a changed climate, there are fewer prosecutions, and law enforcers have other priorities.

Many of the more traditional vice premises have, moreover, long since disappeared, and the massage establishments legislation, enacted in the 1980s as a means of combating vice in licensed premises, has generally worked well.

A more relaxed approach is, it seems, also taken towards street walking, if discreet, in places like Mong Kok’s Portland Street, even at peak times, though this is probably related to an absence of public complaints.

Inside one of the Kwun Tong flats used as a brothel. Photo: David Wong

The police have certainly focused more on human trafficking and the evils of the sex trade, such as the ensnarement of underaged girls, rather than on hounding individual sex workers, which is a sensible deployment of resources.

Although sex workers from elsewhere, working in breach of their entry conditions, must expect strict enforcement action, there will often be cases when they can be given an immunity from prosecution in return for testifying against their pimps and traffickers, who, after all, are the real villains.

Where possible, therefore, the authorities should adopt a light touch towards sex workers who stay within the law and do not disturb others. They should also be as tolerant as possible of those who seek to ensure their own personal safety, perhaps by taking precautions which, legally, may be close to the line, such as banding together, provided, of course, this avoids hazards or nuisance.

By and large, Hong Kong’s approach to sex work is aligned with Amnesty International’s policy, and is focused and realistic. However, anything that can be done to avoid unnecessarily harassing, humiliating or charging sex workers is to be encouraged, not least because humanity has its role to play in law enforcement.

Grenville Cross SC, an honorary professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, is a criminal justice analyst

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Hong Kong adopts a realistic approach to policing sex work

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 September, 2015, 11:56am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 September, 2015, 11:56am
Grenville Cross


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Global CEO-Founder of ChangeU and Movsha Movers & Shakers, Hero-CEO Whisperer, Writer, The #1 Alpha Change Expert, Father of Asian FireWalking Robert Chaen is an International Keynote Speaker, writer, researcher, and corp games designer. He is famously known to be the “Hero-CEO Whisperer”, 1-on1 coaching with many CEOs and Celebrities for corporate strategies, staff & office political issues, personal branding, and even public figure OSHA safety drilling called Drager Defense. He has transformed CEOs and managers in Coca-Cola China, TVB Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong Airport Services, VADS, TM, Public Bank, Auditor General's Office Maldives, etc. He is the prolific creator and online Author of innovative management tools such as DragonCEO, Diamond Leader, Papillon Personal Effectiveness, OSHA Drager Defense, KPI Bank, etc. He is also the Founder of Movsha, an international networking with monthly mingles with MOVers & SHAkers, Angels, Entrepreneurs, CEOs, Celebrities, HR-PR-CSR, HODs, and the Most Influential IDEA people. ​Chaen is widely considered as one of the top International Platform Keynote Speakers for Resorts World Genting Senior Management Conference (Manila), 7-Eleven HK, Samsung, Coca-Cola China Mini-MBA @Tsing Hua University, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong Jockey Club, The Story Conference where he interviewed Datuk Kamarudin (Chairman of AirAsia) and Siti Nurhaliza. He has been widely featured in TVB, AWSJ, CNBC, SCMP, The Star, and Sin Chew. As “The Father of Asian FireWalking”, he coached TVB celebrities (Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin) to walk on 650°C fire; and raised HK$68M in the world’s 1st and only live TV Charity FireWalk (TVB Tung Wah Charity Show), before Tony Robbins even came to Asia. If Robert can get you to walk on 650⁰C fire, he can inspire you to be THE BEST. He champions CN-HK-EU-US Tycoons to be philanthropic, and to be angel investors to support the next generation of Jack Mas, Steve Jobs, Richard Bransons, Steven Spielbergs, or Barrack Obamas. With some slick motivational speakers with fake doctorates out there, graduates often describe Robert to be "the most credible, empowering, truthful Coach" who believe in his graduates to believe in themselves. ​However, clients have described Robert as "The #1 Cool Badass Alpha Change Expert". He has the coolest first class stature, rapport and trust from clients. He will not hesitate to tell the badass truth ever so gently because clients are paying him big bucks to reveal the truth, find solutions, persuade the hostile HODs, and align cross-teams within the organization. Originally based in Hong Kong for 20+ years, he had worked with top Branding/Ad agencies at J Walter Thompson and Leo Burnett, and was a certified FranklinCovey (7 Habits) in USA, and NLP MasterCoach (USA). His warmth is known to soften the most hardened, resistant sceptics. He will inspire your team to Go for Top 1, or to be a Dragon CEO. With boundless energies, Robert owns 15+ successful business Joint-Ventures, and created unique products under his global VC network called Chaen's Angels VC. He is deeply passionate about ChangeUTH Youth CSR, Science-Based Medicine (vs. quackery), short films and Reality TV. Touched by a personal tragedy through the loss of his HK-born Portuguese wife, co-coach and business partner, Brenda José of 18 years, Robert explores the many ways in which the spirit world is communicating with the living with real scientific studies and evidence. He gives inspiring conferences on The Secret Afterlife.

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